Infants with bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) who were born to Black mothers were significantly more likely to die or to have a longer hospital stay than infants of other ethnicities, based on data from more than 800 infants.
The overall incidence of BPD is rising, in part because of improved survival for extremely preterm infants, wrote Tamorah R. Lewis, MD, of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and colleagues.
Previous studies suggest that racial disparities may affect outcomes for preterm infants with a range of neonatal morbidities during neonatal ICU (NICU) hospitalization, including respiratory distress syndrome, intraventricular hemorrhage, and necrotizing enterocolitis. However, the association of racial disparities with outcomes for preterm infants with BPD remains unclear, they said.
In a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the researchers, on behalf of the Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia Collaborative, reviewed data from 834 preterm infants enrolled in the BPD Collaborative registry from Jan. 1, 2015, to July 19, 2021, at eight centers in the United States.
The study infants were born at less than 32 weeks’ gestation and were diagnosed with severe BPD according to the 2001 National Institutes of Health Consensus Criteria. The study population included 276 Black infants and 558 white infants. The median gestational age was 24 weeks, and 41% of the infants were female.
The primary outcomes were infant death and length of hospital stay.
Although death was infrequent (4% overall), Black maternal race was significantly associated with an increased risk of death from BPD (adjusted odds ratio, 2.1). Black maternal race also was significantly associated with a longer hospital stay for the infants, with an adjusted between-group difference of 10 days.
Infants of Black mothers also were more likely than those with White mothers to receive invasive respiratory support at the time of delivery. Black infants were more likely than White infants to have lower gestational age, lower birth weight and length, and smaller head circumference.
However, the proportions of cesarean deliveries, gender distribution, and infants small for gestational age were similar between Black and White infant groups. Medication exposure at 36 weeks postmenstrual age (PMA) also was similar for Black and White infants, and 50% of patients overall were treated with nasal continuous positive airway pressure at 36 weeks’ PMA. Awareness of the increased risk of death and longer hospital stay for Black infants is critical, “given the highly variable outcomes for patients with BPD and the uncertainty regarding demographic factors that contribute to late respiratory morbidity in severe BPD,” the researchers wrote.
The study findings were limited by several factors including variations among study centers in the identification and recording of maternal race, lack of data on paternal race, and the focus specifically on Black maternal race and not on other ethnicities. Given the documented health disparities for Black individuals in the United States, “we restricted our cohort to only those patients born to Black or White mothers to estimate the association of Black maternal race and adverse in-hospital outcomes in infants with severe BPD,” the researchers wrote
Other limitations include the lack of data surrounding infant death and inability to adjust for all potential modifiers of BPD pathogenesis and progression, such as BPD comorbidities.
Prospective studies are needed to identify the sociodemographic mechanisms that may contribute to health outcome disparities for Black infants with severe BPD, the researchers emphasized.
In the meantime, the results highlight the need for more attention to variations in care for infants with BPD of different races, and approaches to family-centered care should consider “the precise needs of high-risk, structurally disadvantaged families while informing the design of prospective trials that improve outcomes for high-risk subgroups of children with severe BPD,” they concluded.
Data Raise Questions About the Origin of Disparities
The current study findings contribute to the knowledge and awareness of disparities in the high-risk NICU population, Nicolas A. Bamat, MD, and colleagues wrote in an accompanying editorial. “Further, their findings oppose the central tendency in the literature: that infants of Black mothers have less severe lung disease of prematurity during the birth hospitalization.”
The editorial authors noted that the study’s inclusion of racial characteristics as confounding variables to assess the effect of race on health “can imply questionable assumptions about where in a causal pathway racism begins to exert an effect,” whether after a diagnosis of BPD, during pregnancy in response to inequitable obstetric care, or “centuries ago, propagating forward through the shared experience of communities oppressed by the legacy of racism and its ongoing contemporary manifestations.”
The editorial authors added that, “in lung disease of prematurity, few variables are reliable antecedents to race as an exposure. Complex adjustment is necessary to reduce bias in targeted research questions.” However, the current study findings highlight the need to move toward more equitable neonatal care, and to prioritize interventions to reduce racial health disparities at the level of the NICU as well as at the hospital and government policy levels.
Consider Range of Contributing Factors and Confounders
The current study is important because “it is imperative to measure racial outcomes in health care in order to highlight and address disparities and biases,” Tim Joos, MD, said in an interview. However, “it can be difficult to determine how much race is a factor in itself versus a proxy for other important characteristics, such as socioeconomic status and level of education, that can confound the results.”
In the current study, the twofold-increased death rate in the premature infants of Black mothers is concerning and deserves further attention, Joos said. “The 10-day longer length of stay for infants of Black mothers seems quite shocking at first glance, but because of the long hospital stays for these extremely premature infants in general, it is about 7% longer than the infants born to White mothers.”
The take-home message is that this difference is still significant, and can reflect many factors including disease severity and complications, need for feeding assistance, teaching, and setting up home supports, said Joos.
As for additional research, “it would be useful for hospitals to break down why the differences exist, although I worry a provider or institution will feel they need to discharge Black families sooner to avoid being biased. Family preference and comfort level should be given high priority,” he emphasized.
The study received no outside funding, but lead author Lewis was supported by the National Institute on Child Health and Development and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Several coauthors were supported by other grants from the National Institutes of Health. Barnat and one coauthor were supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Joos had no financial conflicts to disclose and serves on the editorial advisory board of Pediatric News.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.